The Black Sheep – Chapter 40

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 40 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week.  Click here for previous chapters.

Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications. 

He had never been a coward, not even on those nights when he’d wandered around without finding a place to sleep. In the end he’d always returned home, perhaps because he really was a coward but just couldn’t admit it.

Osher shrugged and headed down the stairs. Maybe in a few years he’d be able to say of himself that he was afraid now, too, but just did not want to admit it. Regardless, he needed to check now what was going on here, with this place. The Rav had said that he was leaving for the night because he and his wife had to babysit their nieces and nephews. The problem was that a few hours ago, there had been a suspicious figure standing on the corner of the block, facing the house, and he hadn’t moved for a long while. Would the person use this opportunity, when the Reinesses were away for the night, to try to get what he wanted?

Osher did not know what the person wanted, but he knew that he would not allow the stranger to get in, no matter what. He could not see from afar if it was the Arab who had once knocked on the Reinesses’ door, when their son was home, because the man had been partially concealed by the hut on the corner, and the minute Osher had gone down to the street, he’d disappeared.

And that was very suspicious.

Now he was going down for a short patrol of the yard, to make sure everything was quiet. Then he would go back to sl—

“Hey!” Shlomo whispered from the top of the stairs. “Where are you going?”

“To check that everything is alright downstairs,” Osher said in a low tone, without turning around. “If the Rav is hiding something there, he won’t be very happy if someone breaks in when he’s not around.”

“He also won’t be happy if they break in when he is around,” Shlomo commented. “But why do you think he’s hiding something? What, you think he has stolen merchandise in this place?”

“Ha ha, so funny.” Osher continued down the stairs with his head held high. “I don’t know if he’s hiding anything, but he’s guarding something—you can see that much. It might be in the carpentry shop, or it might be the actual house, or part of it…”

Shlomo did not reply.

Osher walked around the house until he came to the backyard. Everything was so silent; he wondered if the stranger who had been watching them a few hours earlier had dared to come in here. He didn’t see any footprints, but it was so inky black, and such a mess of mud and brambles and boards, that it was impossible to see anything anyway.

The fence surrounding the house on this side was taller than he was, but there were tiny gaps between the slats. He approached, and pressed his eye to one of the cracks, trying to see if anyone was behind the fence. No. Everything was dark and silent.

Osher went back to the carpentry shop and walked around it, forging himself a path in the yard, until he reached the large steel door of the workshop.

Shlomo was standing there, his arms folded. “I think you’re right,” he said to Osher.

“Huh?” Osher said.

“I was thinking about it. And you’re right. The Rav is afraid of something.”

“How do you know?”

Shlomo pointed to a protruding rectangle connected to the side of the door; it was made of silvery metal and had two rows of numbered buttons. “They installed this combination lock a week and a half ago,” he said.

“I didn’t even notice it. Are you sure?”

“Well, by the time you come down in the morning, the door is usually open, so it’s harder to notice it.”

“What kind of lock is this thing? It opens with a code, instead of with a key?”

“Exactly. And it’s harder to break into it than a regular lock.” Shlomo paused. “But it’s not only that. After you went downstairs, I remembered another new thing here. It might not be so new—I don’t know. I didn’t notice when it was put in. Come see.”

Osher followed Shlomo to the front gate of the property. Shlomo went out to the street, and Osher followed him. “Here.” Shlomo pointed. Hanging on the gate, right next to the opening, was a small, yellow sign that was visible even in the dark. Osher could not read the red Arabic letters, but the print Hebrew letters formed a familiar sentence: This place is protected 24 hours a day by security cameras.

“It’s possible that this is because it’s an Arab area,” Osher murmured, “or because the carpentry shop has expensive equipment.”

“But none of that is new to the Rav,” Shlomo said pointedly. “And these protective measures are. Something happened. Or something is about to happen.”

***

Someone was sneaking up stealthily behind him. There was no doubt about it.

Elazar put his finger on the beginning of the line he was learning and took a deep breath. Had they tracked him down to here? Strange. If they wanted to harm him, there were lots more opportunities in Acco. Until today, he hadn’t thought they might target him personally, but the approaching footsteps were a fact.

The person was already very close, and Elazar didn’t spend any more time thinking. He rose swiftly, and his left leg toppled the chair he had been sitting on with a mighty blow.

“Owwww!” shouted a voice, and then there was the sound of someone falling. “Oww!”

Elazar turned around and discovered his young nephew sitting on the floor, staring at him accusingly.

“Gadi!” He closed the Gemara and hurried over to the boy. “It’s you?”

Sarah and her guest quickly appeared in the doorway. “Is everything alright, Elazar?”

“Yes,” the older man said, as he reached his hand out to his nephew. “We had a little accident here, but everything is fine.”

Sarah didn’t probe any further. The conversation she was having with her client was obviously very important; she retreated into the kitchen, and the murmur of conversation resumed.

“Gadi, do you know that you scared me?” Elazar put an arm around the boy’s shoulder. “You sneaked up in such a scary way that I thought you were an intruder!”

“Ow,” Gadi said, rubbing his thigh. “Too bad it wasn’t an intruder. It would have been fun to see you knock him down so easily!”

“First of all, I’m happy it wasn’t an intruder,” Elazar said. He seated his nephew on the couch near the wall. “I wouldn’t have been able to knock him down so easily, that’s for sure. Now, are you alright?”

“I think so,” Gadi said. “I got a shock, but it’s okay. You should just know that if it had been a robber, you still might have been able to knock him down, because I would have come to help you.”

“Really!” Elazar grinned. “But aren’t you supposed to be fast asleep at this hour?”

“Supposed to be.” His nephew sighed. “But a lot of times, it’s hard for me to fall asleep.”

“Are you worried about Yisrael Meir?”

“No. I mean, I feel really bad for him that he’s in pain, but what’s there to worry about? They’ll connect his bones in an operation, he’ll have a cast for a few weeks, and it will all be fine.”

“It’s always a good idea to daven,” his uncle said gently.

“I said lots of Tehillim today, because the neighbors who were babysitting for us kept sending me to say Tehillim. They probably couldn’t stand watching me wander around their house; they don’t have patience like my mother does.”

Elazar smiled. “Do you want to go to the kitchen to take a drink? But just for a minute, because we brought a guest with us, and she’s having a very important conversation with Aunt Sarah, and I’m not sure you’re supposed to be part of it.”

“I’m not interested in adults’ conversations anyway, don’t worry,” Gadi scoffed. “Kids’ lives are much more interesting than adults’ lives, don’t you think? Adults are just one big bore.”

Elazar’s smile grew wider. He knew Gadi since he was born, but he’d never had a chance to actually speak to him for more than a minute. Now he was discovering that he was a clever boy, who was very expressive, and he had a style of thinking that reminded him distinctly of someone.

Who was it, though?

“I’m going to get a drink,” Gadi announced. He stood up.

“Then come back, and you can rest on the couch until you fall asleep,” Elazar called after him, picking up the toppled chair. “I’ll continue to learn in the meantime.”

Twenty minutes after he opened the Gemara for the second time, Elazar closed it and looked at the couch. He was surprised to see that the boy’s eyes were still wide open and fixed on him.

“Gadi!” he exclaimed. “It’s after one o’clock! How is it that a boy your age is not sleeping?”

“Osher is the student you brought here, right? One of the boys who got bitten by the fox.”

“That’s right.”

“So you teach the boys, and Aunt Sarah does PTA with their mothers?”

“What?!”

“But why so late at night?”

“I also don’t understand why you are up so late at night. Look, you’re so tired, you sound dazed!”

“Dazed is a word from books. But I’m not dazed at all,” the boy protested, as he sat up on the couch and stretched his legs. He looked at his bare toes. “I wasn’t dreaming it. When I went to the kitchen to get a drink, Aunt Sarah was asking the other lady, ‘Did the two of you always have a good connection?’ And then the other lady answered her, ‘Yes, he always got along with me, ever since he was little.’ Then Aunt Sarah said, ‘So it’s not surprising that you came. Concern and love are very good things.’ And the other lady answered, ‘Right, it’s just a shame that Osher doesn’t realize that.’ And then I finished my drink, and I came back here.”

“And you remember all those sentences by heart?!”

“Well, they didn’t say exactly those words, you know, but that was basically their conversation,” the boy said solemnly.

Elazar smiled. Osher didn’t have even two thirds of this boy’s sharpness, but there were some very obvious similarities between the two boys. Now he knew exactly who Gadi reminded him of.

He sat down next to Gadi, ignoring the time and the fact that he was supposed to be getting up in just four hours. “So you didn’t hear her say clearly that she’s his mother.” He whispered the words.

“No, but it sounded that way, right?”

“You could say so.”

“Do you want me to go to sleep already?”

“I think it’s a good idea. Not for me, for you.”

“I’m used to being up sometimes…I don’t know why it happens.” The boy sighed. “Maybe it happens when I’m worried, and I guess I am a little bit worried about Yisrael Meir.”

“So what do you do when everyone is sleeping?”

“My mother is usually still up at this time. She says that some people blossom at night, so at night she draws on the walls for us, and makes artwork from glass—she has a little oven in her room—or she makes jewelry from beads and stones.”

“And you help her?”

“She doesn’t let me. She says it’s just going to give me a reason not to fall asleep, and that I need a clear head to learn the next day.”

The boy stood up, and Elazar thought he was tired of talking and planned to go bed. But Gadi began leaping from the floor to the couch and from the couch to the floor. Every bounce on the couch made Elazar’s insides churn, and he hurriedly stood up. The boy was very sweet, but how did his rebbeim manage him?!

“And in cheder, is your mind fresh?”

“After I take what I need to take in the morning, then yes.”

“You seem to be a good student, Gadi.”

“The baker doesn’t speak about his own dough,” the baker himself declared gaily, as he took another huge leap off the couch.

Why then was this child’s dough so soft and pillowy, while Osher’s—what was his connection to Sarah’s client?—was so shrunken, dry, and rather sour-tasting?

***

It was four in the morning by the time Ariella began to make the cot that stood in the middle of the Bergs’ storage room. A grand mess surrounded her on all sides, but Ariella knew that if she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, it would not be because of that. She had been raised in a very orderly environment, yet she’d never been able to get herself to conform to all the rules of that orderliness.

She struggled to put the large quilt into the quilt cover, and when she was done, she sat down on the bed and looked around. The owner of this storage room seemed to be accustomed to an American basement. Your standard Israeli family did not usually set aside a whole room—and a large one at that—just to store toys, blankets, kitchen utensils, some dismantled pieces of furniture that may have been part of a previous apartment, and three huge baskets filled with clothes next to the washing machine. Where was the dryer? It was strange that there wasn’t one here.

It wasn’t that she’d glanced into the closets to see what was inside; rather, most of them were open, and many of the objects inside were either scattered on the wire shelves or had tumbled to the floor.

It was possible, of course, that this room only looked like this today, when the mother of the home had been away and her children had done as they pleased in it. But something in the friendly mess looked pretty permanent, though Ariella could not put her finger on what it was. Maybe it was the open ironing board piled with countless white shirts, or the mounds of clean laundry in the baskets. Perhaps it was the dozens of writing supplies that were haphazardly stacked on the shelves near her bed. It was a bit too much to have happened all in one day. And besides, there was something organized about the whole disorder.

Ariella had a feeling that she would like the mother of this house.

It would have been nice to have grown up in a room like this. Her perfect room from her childhood, with the gorgeous desk and the elegant bed specially ordered from a carpenter, were not her taste. Her parents had consulted with her, of course, and they’d let her choose the furniture’s design from a whole catalog that the carpenter had sent. But she found all the designs in the catalog to be very uninspiring and boring. Having little choice, she’d chosen the asymmetrical circle design for the doors of the armoire, the drawers, and the bed’s headboard. That design might have been a bit nicer than all the other lines and squares which the carpenter seemed to like, but it really wasn’t enough. As a girl, Ariella had dreamed of enhancing her bedroom furniture with stickers, something that would give some life to the room. But the Formica was too nice, too shiny, and she would never have voiced such a suggestion.

Just glancing around the room now, Ariella counted more than twenty childish stickers that had been pasted on different surfaces, including on the legs of the ironing board.

If she wouldn’t fall asleep easily, then maybe she’d get up and do some ironing for this family.

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